About 500 miles from the Ravens’ Owings Mills headquarters, the 23-year-old who had turned the team’s Week 17 playoff dreams into a fourth-and-12 nightmare offered an assessment of his perception in Baltimore.
“They are probably sick of me,” Cincinnati Bengals third-year wide receiver Tyler Boyd told the Dayton Daily News. And if not Boyd, then probably highlights of the last-minute, 49-yard touchdown pass he caught at M&T Bank Stadium. And if not highlights of the play, then certainly questions about it.
The Ravens had a full offseason to reckon with the hows and whys of their third straight postseason absence, but the most readily available explanation was that they could not stop a backup who entered the regular-season finale with 134 receiving yards from effectively ending a game that, at that point, the Ravens had a 93.4 percent chance of winning. In one play, according to ESPN, those odds fell to 7 percent.
There was no point in pointing fingers this week, and coach John Harbaugh bristled at a question about whether the fateful fourth-down play would be shown in a team meeting ahead of Thursday’s game in Cincinnati (1-0). “What would be the point?” he asked Monday. “We messed the play up.”
A win in any of the Ravens’ six other losses would have sent the team to the playoffs, quarterback Joe Flacco noted Tuesday. There was no sense in exhuming the specifics of a long-dead game: how a defensive-holding call wiped out an interception by Eric Weddle with 83 seconds remaining, how the Ravens didn’t run a zone defense during the Bengals’ drive until its final play, how the 31-27 defeat left veterans Terrell Suggs and Tony Jefferson visibly shaken in the locker room afterward.
“That’s life,” Harbaugh said Monday, acknowledging that the aftershock of the loss would likely linger until after kickoff. “It’s human nature. You always want to redeem yourself as best as you can, certainly, but it’s not going to factor into who wins the game. It’s not going to matter in the outcome. You still have to play better than your opponent on that day, and that’s really what we have to focus on.
“You could easily get all wrapped up in that and get distracted from what matters, which is going out there Thursday night and playing well.”
For a game of such outsize importance and weighty story lines, surprisingly little about the teams has changed since Dec. 31. Longtime Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who reportedly had planned to leave after his 15th season, instead came back for his 16th. In Baltimore, Harbaugh, Flacco and general manager Ozzie Newsome returned for their 11th season together.
The most notable departures were at defensive coordinator; the Ravens’ Dean Pees retired (before the Tennessee Titans hired him to the same post), and Cincinnati’s Paul Guenther moved on to the Oakland Raiders. The most notable arrivals might have been Buffalo wings, which the Bills sent the Bengals 1,440 of after their win cleared a spot for Buffalo in the playoffs.
The Ravens chewed on the defeat long enough to know they had to move past it eventually. Even cornerback Tavon Young, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL, was reluctant to talk about the experience of watching the game from his home.
“We had a long time to dwell on it, and we came off a great game, a great game plan, a great team win” Sunday against Buffalo, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley said Monday. “So we’re just trying to take that momentum and move it to this Thursday night. We know our opponent, and they know us at that standpoint. We’ve been going at it for a long time. No matter who wins or who loses this next game, we all know that at the end of the season, it’s going to come down to a couple of wins and losses in our division.”
That’s how it went last year. Their final two losses were to the Pittsburgh Steelers, by one point, and to the Bengals, by four. In both, the Ravens could not stop an AFC North rival from covering at least half the field in the final three minutes of the game for a go-ahead score.
Should the moment call for it Thursday night, at least their defense will be well drilled. The two-minute defense was a focus of the Ravens’ preseason, and first-year coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale said last week that “we’re actually executing and understanding what we have to do in different situations.”
Not that the Ravens are hoping for a tense fourth quarter to prove it.
“It’s a 60-minute ballgame, and although it did come down to that last play [last year], there were other plays in there that we wish we could have back,” Jefferson, a safety, said Monday. “They were in critical moments — not only in the last minutes of the game, but throughout the whole game.”
The loss was especially cruel not because of its gut-wrenching finish but because of the specific failure it represented. The Ravens’ mantra all season had been simple: “Finish everything.” And then, before they knew it, everything was finished.
After a loss like that, even eight months later, would Harbaugh really need to replay the game tape for the Ravens? On Tuesday, cornerback Brandon Carr offered something of an answer. He had been asked whether the loss still lingered in players' thoughts.
“If I were to say no,” he said, “I’d be lying.”